“This is something no human has seen before,” said Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“We’re watching a solar system get destroyed,” he said in a statement.
Dr. Vanderburg and his team had used NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler spacecraft to make the discovery.
In October 2015 astronomers announced that they had discovered a rocky object coming apart in a death spiral around this distant star.
It was the first planetary-sized object detected orbiting the white dwarf.
They had noticed a regular dip in the brightness of the WD 1145+017, which is about 570 light years away in the constellation Virgo, every four-and-a-half hours, suggesting an object was orbiting the star at a distance of about 840,000 kilometers — about twice the distance between Earth and the Moon.
The discovery has provided a glimpse of what may happen to our own Solar System when the Sun stops burning.
“Our sun will one day balloon out to become a red giant star, wiping out Mercury and Venus and maybe Earth, before it becomes a white dwarf,” lead author Boris Gänsicke, an astronomer at the University of Warwick, told Space.com.
“By looking at this white dwarf, we get a look at what the future of the Solar System might be like,” he added.
White dwarfs are the remains of dead Sun-like stars which have run out of fuel
After first expanding into a red giant and engulfing the inner planets (which in the Solar System will include Earth), the star sheds its outer layers to leave a small and very dense core.